Jam Cruise 9 | Review | Pics

Thursday, January 6

Honduras by Chris Monaghan
Another heartening difference between Jam Cruise and other cruises is how they treat the ports the ship visits. In Roatan, Honduras this day and the next day in Costa Maya Mexico, the organizers arranged concerts for school children, eco-minded excursions and brought school supplies donated by attendees to those in need. There’s a conscious effort to not be another floating ATM machine full of Westerners that come ashore, pillage goods and services and then jet away. This is still a luxury adventure, particularly for those used to sleeping bags and camp stoves, but there’s a strong infusion of compassion and humanity into what is too often just a celebration of consumption and excess.

This spirit extends to coordinated recycling bins throughout the ship and Jam Cruise’s vigorous attempt to get passengers to invest in carbon offsets with a small donation which came with the reward of a lively Everyone Orchestra performance on the final day, where Matt Butler was in particularly fine form, conducting with telepathic understanding, a true musician’s musician with the ability to draw things out of players they likely didn’t know they had in them.

While it would be easy to just eat, drink and be merry, Jam Cruise makes a real effort to be more, to connect people with the environment and the places it visits in a deeper way that makes those that pitch in better citizens of the world.

Easy Star All-Stars :: 5:30-7:00 PM :: Pool Deck
Once again, sailing away produced a happy, almost mythological churn in my belly as the lush shores of Honduras faded to the utterly on-the-money reggae of Easy Star. While the group has gotten the majority of its attention for laying some irie on Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper and OK Computer, the originals they played this set were some of the strongest since the prime days of Marley, Tosh, et al. And their handling of rock classics is a reggae tradition that goes way back, where popular music in the West found new life in Jamaica - there would be no ska without Motown/Stax. Easy Star’s vocal blend is delicious, all the singers filled with warmth and appealing phrasing, and their ongoing presence in the jam scene has brought their individual chops as instrumentalists to the fore in a cool way. Put another way, they solo and shine in ways a lot of contemporary reggae doesn’t, perhaps stirred on by jam’s Cult of the Shredder mentality. Still, it’s the group feel that most captures one with Easy Star and gives fresh life to familiar numbers, exemplified by the yummy run from The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper > I Get By With Some Help From My Friends” into Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and out into a crushingly sublime take on Radiohead’s “Lucky” that was nearly the equal of the original. This is reggae at its best that honors tradition and expands the genre with skill and style.

Zach Gill by Chad Smith
Zach Gill :: 7:30-8:15 PM :: The Atrium
In the staircase encircled ship’s main lobby sits an acrylic, clear top grand piano. It’s the kind of instrument Liberace might have kept as a backup if one of his ornate babies went out of tune, and each night a different keyboardist took a turn on it during the dinner period – The New Mastersounds’ Joe Tatton on Tuesday, Marco Benevento on Wednesday, Gill on Thursday, Widespread’s JoJo Hermann on Friday and Umphrey’s Joel Cummins on Saturday. Each had VERY different approaches but Gill perhaps captured the Piano Man heart of the instrument best. Emerging a little worse for wear in a hat snatched from M.A.S.H.’s Hawkeye, Gill settled in lackadaisically, asking us what we wanted to hear. What we got was an inviting mixture of songs about childhood, family and hope - some originals, some well-picked covers like Billy Joel’s “My Life” and a sing-along inducing version of Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.” With a small wooden sailboat on top of the piano, Gill honored piano bar tradition with a touch of modern flair.

Dave Schools by Chad Smith
Stockholm Syndrome :: 9:15-11:00 PM :: Pool Deck
Anyone familiar with Stockholm would likely have been surprised by how cheery and bubbly they were at this set. Most of the dark, grizzled, politically charged material (largely drawn from Jerry Joseph’s catalog) was left aside to reveal a hitherto unknown Latin bent, a saucy cover of the Climax Blues Band’s “Couldn’t Get It Right” and more new songs that show there’s more to this band than their debut and handful of tours previously indicated. Schools looks like he’s having the time of his life, Ingram shows off his big rock drummer chops, McFadden and Joseph shred mightily and Danny Louis is exposed in a way that shows off what a wacked keyboard wizard he truly is. A punkish “Conscious Contact” was another highlight, and overall this set only amped my curiosity about what this band might produce down the line.

Big Gigantic by Chad Smith
Big Gigantic :: 11:45 PM-1:30 AM :: Pool Deck
Very rarely does a band blow me away the first time I see them. The adjustment to their vibe usually takes a time or two, but so immediate and sultry is Big Gigantic’s thang that I found resistance futile. It’s definitely dance music, but with much greater dynamics and musicality than most working a similar vein today. They don’t rely on obvious samples to get over with the crowd, instead diggin’ hard for sounds and beat configurations that will stimulate groove people. Drummer Jeremy Salken pumps blood into the machine rhtyhms andDominic Lalli is a blur of keyboards, samples, triggered beats, loops and saxophone freakiness that compares favorably to Jam Cruise vet Skerik. Big Gigantic plays to the tastes of dance music fans but expands upon them in a really nifty way.

Garage A Trois by Dave Vann
Garage A Trois :: 2:15-4:00 AM :: Pool Deck
In perhaps the most aerobic set of the Cruise (down to matching track suits), Skerik (saxophonics), Mike Dillon (vibes, marimba, percussion), Stanton Moore (drums) and Marco Benevento worked up a crazed lather as they laid down instrumental music without borders or clear precedent. They always make me feel giddily unmoored, a feeling intensified by the rockin’ of the ship. They were on their best mis-behavior in front of a totally engaged, lit-up audience eager to devour their strangeness. One gets the sense they dare one another to go beyond throughout their sets, speeding up to insane levels or working with space in a daring, uncontrolled way. Personally, this is my favorite Stanton Moore project because it most removes him from his New Orleans comfort zone. You could see him out on the edge again and again in this set, poked and prodded by the three circus lunatics in the foreground. When so much in the world is structured and ordered, it’s a joy to wallow around in such lawless sonics.

Lotus by Chad Smith
Lotus:: 2:00-4:00 AM :: Teatro Carlo Felice
I’m the first to confess that what Lotus does isn’t my first love musically but the band really unlocked for me at this set, which featured the most dramatic, empathetic light show of the cruise. What came through was what REALLY good musicians these four are, and how well they understand the ebb & flow of today’s instrumental music, which is often more about mood and texture than straight melody, though they have a good deal of that, too. Their drummer has the crack of Art Blakey in a post Aphex Twin world, forming an ever-solid center around which the others swoop and swerve. The music carries echoes of primo jazz fusion, early Tangerine Dream, Boards of Canada, Kratwerk, 70s film scores and even Dream Theater in some proggy moments. Lotus hits the same pleasure points as electronic music, stimulating synapses with real artistry, but they don’t succumb to bald repetition and pounding intensity too common with most electronic music. And it was SUCH a scene in the theater - gypsies and zebra striped kids weaving about, a group of rotund clowns working what the ringmaster gave them in the balcony. Below, glow sticks flew through the air as people sparkled and shimmied in time to the ever-changing music. A gangsta lean guest turn from Dominic Lalli didn’t hurt, and the exuberance of Lotus’ followers proved quite infectious.

Interlude Two

George Porter Jr. & Ian Neville by Chad Smith
The Jam Room is a nightly event on the ship where the musicians take over one of the lounge bars. It’s a cutting session of the highest order and a chance to see way, way too much talent on one stage. It’s where the musicians often end up after their own sets, and it’s a meeting ground for all styles, though funk/soul predominates. On this night, one of Jam Cruise’s royalty George Porter Jr. was the host – other nights were helmed by Tony Hall, Wally Ingram, Big Sam and Steve Kimock – and George was working his eager participants like sled dogs. When I walked in a bit after 4 am, the lounge was packed and the music was loud and razor sharp. This didn’t let up for hours, and once again left me flabbergasted at the stamina and invention of the players on Jam Cruise. Not everyone can hang in such an environment, sliding in and out of pieces that often come to life in the moment, but there was no lack of musical greatness to be had any hour in the Jam Room.

If one stepped outside onto the deck just outside the funky roar, they discovered Nathan Moore, Bryan Elijah Smith, Greensky’s stunning dobro genious Anders Beck and a rotating cast of musicians and passengers picking away. It was unutterably organic and lovely to see music, unplanned, unscheduled, burbling away. It was music for the pure joy of it, and it made one stomp their feet and hoot and reach for the sky in happiness. And it went on for hours, greeting the sunrise with a sing-along “You Are My Sunshine,” with the whole hootenanny happening again the next night. Nathan is one of those wonderful catalysts that brings out the song in our hearts and inspires us to open our lips and just sing it to whoever might be around. Sometimes that was Kimock, borrowing Beck’s dobro and picking Dead melodies, and sometimes it was just regular folks with a ukulele and a fractured voice, but it was always magical and a real step outside of normal life. This sort of thing happens on Jam Cruise, which creates an environment friendly to such impromptu shows of creativity, and one is just lucky to stumble across them in their rambling.

Continue reading for Day Four of Jam Cruise 9...

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